From Cartagena I got on a sailboat for a five day trip to Panama through the San Blas Islands. It was a great experience and one that I had been pursuing for a while. But at the end my body was weak and I was ready to come home. Happily now I am!
I was considering trying to come up with some grand conclusions in this final post, but that would be foolish. Instead I read through my original proposal and looked through some of my photos and past posts and came to the following reflections:
Obviously a key component of trip was the bicycle. I believed that traveling by bicycle in and through communities would allow me to connect to people in a different and unique way. Indeed it did. I met some of the most passionate and genuine people I've known through Critical Mass Beirut, perhaps my greatest outward achievement on this trip (in which achievement is pretty much prohibited by the grant). In Syria and Malawi my bicycle brought me in contact with many people I would never have seen, even through the windows of a car (like the folks in this photo). In Zimbabwe, South Africa and Brazil it carried to the top of mountains, across rivers and some of the most spectacular natural beauty I have been privileged to experienced.
The other guiding tenet was language. I sought countries where I had some previous experience in a common language or at least the desire to learn. In some places this proved essential. It would have been much less fulfilling to visit Syria without the elementary Arabic I learned and much more complicated to travel to a place like Cape Verde. But in other places, like Senegal, not speaking the language somehow made little difference in meeting people. That leads me to the conclusion that to some degree interacting and making connections with residents while traveling is more a factor of the character of people the the words we speak.
Out of school, out of the job market, yet to be married and with few responsibilities, curious or bored guys aged 17 to 22 were my constant guides and friends.
Some of my favorite places were former European colonial cities. But I wonder why. Is it the visual mix of old and and new? Is it because its easier to be in an European style habitat? Or is it because its interesting to see people with dark skin inhabiting spaces built to exclude them?
Sexual tourists are a plague! They are almost everywhere and have little shame. The fifty-year old American man with the twenty year old Mozambican girlfriend in Malawi. The group of dutch boys headed to Brazil because they heard the girls are easy. When people travel they seem to think all rules are off, men from the global North are proud to talk about the prostitutes with whom they do business. Of course tourists abuse their power differential in many ways. Through exchange rates which allows the opportunity to live like a king, over consuming the generosity which seems run deeper in non-western cultures or taking advantage of the awe of the white man and internalized oppression which still exists hundreds of years after colonization.
I was hesitant to apply for the the Bonderman Fellowship because its impossible to not play a role in this inequality and benefit from my financial, geographical and educational privileges. Not to mention the environmental impact of flying around the globe or the hundreds of bottles of water I went through. Perhaps my biggest regret was not bringing chlorine tablets. I can't claim to have avoided these inconsistencies, but I tried to show respect, engage in meaningful interactions, recognize boundaries and contribute to the local economy (as opposed to the tourist economy).
In this day and age it would be easy to consider fear an American tradition. But in fact fear it is a global phenomena responsible for a great deal of misunderstanding and a tremendous barrier to interaction. I was constantly trying to overcome the warnings of locals about the dangers of this place and that. I'm sure the threat was real in many cases, but it was just not worth the worry.
One lesson I've learned is to follow my ears. I followed my ears and ended up a Tae Kwon Doe lesson in rural Senegal. I followed my ears to the creation of pots and pans in Syria. I followed my ears to music, pouring out on the streets of Rio de Janeiro. One place you can always find music abroad is the Alliance Frances. France is equally proficient in its cultural diplomacy as its political diplomacy and in virtually every country I visited had a beautiful French cultural center offering expensive food and free musical performances. So follow your ears. Of course following your nose of course goes with out saying (see below).
Video credit to Samera
At twenty eight years old I am fortunate to have rich and diverse memories. But I heard once on NPR that the more you try to remember something the less accurate that memory becomes. I know that sometimes photographs have a tendency of replacing my memories. My hope was that this blog would aid my weak memory in holding on to this trip as much in the writing as in the review. Thank you for following along with me and a special thanks to everyone who cared and shared with me along the way; I'll even name names: My father and sister and aunt and uncle, Meena, Ruba and Nada in Lebanon and enroute. Samera and the Attahs in Syria. Maira, Abdul, Diallo, Duda, Catia, Abelito, Dona Luxa and the folks at O Tradicional and in Mozambique. Zonke in South Africa. Casey in Cabo Verde. Nana and Diabang in Senegal. Ordean and Oelito, Ceissa and Melissa in Brazil and Alicides, Jan, Keith an Roberto in Colombia. Thanks to those who shared their friends (Meena, Julia, Miyo) and who followed me called, wrote and posted along the way, it meant a lot.